Memorial Day, observed this year on May 28, commemorates all the men and women who have died in military service for the United States. Flags traditionally fly at half-mast from dawn until noon, and volunteers often will place an American flag on the graves of veterans.
At Saint Mary’s in Notre Dame, Indiana, we remember our deceased sisters who served as nurses in the military. This military service actually began in 1861, six months after the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War, when Holy Cross sisters responded to the request of Indiana Governor Oliver Morton to care for Indiana soldiers then serving in Kentucky. Although they had no training as nurses, six sisters, led by Mother M. Angela (Gillespie), journeyed to Paducah, Kentucky, to tend the sick and the wounded. Many more sisters followed, and others went to hospitals in Illinois, Tennessee, Missouri and Washington, D.C.
On Christmas Eve 1862, three Holy Cross sisters boarded the U.S. Navy’s first hospital ship, the Red Rover, to serve as nurses for the wounded on both sides of the war. They traveled the Mississippi River carrying sick and wounded soldiers to various military hospitals. In so doing they became what U.S. naval history today hails as the forerunners of the United States Navy Nurse Corps. Before the conflict ended, 65 of the 160 Sisters of the Holy Cross in the United States would serve in the Civil War, and another 13 sisters would serve in the Spanish-American War.
Each sister-nurse received a military pension, and the Navy honored these sisters with a special headstone placed on their graves in the congregation’s Our Lady of Peace Cemetery at Saint Mary’s.
The Sisters of the Holy Cross are among 12 congregations of religious women who are depicted on the Nuns of the Battlefield monument, erected in 1924 in Washington, D.C. The inscription reads: “To the memory and in honor of the various orders of sisters who gave their services as nurses on the battlefields and in hospitals during the Civil War. They comforted the dying, nursed the wounded, carried hope to the imprisoned, gave in His name a drink of water to the thirsty.”
Image: Novices Callista Tetteh, Grace Kitinisa and Jessica Brock stand at the headstone of Mother M. Augusta (Anderson), who served as a Navy nurse during the U.S. Civil War.